Re-Authorize America COMPETES!

On March 30, in a small, nondescript room at the National Press Club, sat 10 modest people who had pulled off herculean feats: They developed colossal inventions that forever changed how we do things.

Two (Spencer Silver & Arthur Fry) invented something to give absent-minded people a way to remember things by allowing them to stick notes just about anywhere. Another (S. Donald Stookey) gave aspiring chefs, housewives and househusbands everywhere indestructible ovenware to cook that perfect tuna casserole. And a third (Ralph Baer) invented the predecessor to what could be your favorite video obsession – Tomb Raider, Pac Man and Wii Fit.

Those inventors, in addition to 12 others, were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame on that day, in recognition of the significance of their innovations. The event reminded me how important good old fashioned American ingenuity is to our modern society in solving problems, both big and small. It’s also what makes our country great – and competitive.

I’m talking about innovation.

Across town, another group will assemble later this month. This time, Members of Congress will gather to consider reauthorizing the America COMPETES Act. This bill, a landmark piece of legislation passed three years ago by Congress, came on the heels of a disquieting report about the state of science investment, education and innovation in the U.S. The purpose of the report: to provide a roadmap to help the U.S. regain its competitive edge in the global economy.

Three years later, our lead continues to erode. In a January 18, 2010, entry on the White House blog, Kei Koizumi, assistant director for federal research and development with the Office of Science and Technology Policy, noted that ”U.S. dominance of world science and engineering has eroded significantly in recent years, primarily because of rapidly increasing capabilities among East Asian nations, particularly China…”

He was reacting to the findings of a report released earlier that month by the National Science Foundation[1] (NSF), which also found that U.S. R&D investment dropped to 35 percent in 2007, from 40 percent in 1996. The NSF report also stated that more than one-half of the doctorates in natural sciences and engineering awarded in 2007 were earned by temporary and permanent visa holders from other nations.[2]

How could this have happened? It’s partly because Congress has not funded a number of programs authorized in the COMPETES Act. But, Members have another shot to help the U.S. regain its lead: reauthorize the COMPETES Act and fund the programs it calls for. Understandably, it’s a hard sell in a difficult economic climate, where people are struggling to pay their mortgages, put food on the table and keep their families healthy. But if the U.S. is going to remain the largest, most competitive economy in the world, then our government, and in particular, the U.S. Congress, must take the long view and fund science education and basic science investments, which foster innovation over the long term.

Otherwise, the U.S. can never again claim ownership of some of the world’s “big ideas” and future generations of inventors like the Post-It guys or the Video Game inventor. Instead, those budding inventors will choose to go elsewhere.

[1] “Science and Engineering Indicators 2010”, National Science Board

[2] “U.S. investment in global research and development falls”, Alice Lipowicz, Federal Computer Week, Jan 19, 2010

Policy news and viewpoints for the physics community. The analysis and opinions are those of the APS Office of Public Affairs and do not necessarily represent the entire Society.